Monday, August 5, 2013

Glimpses of Black Women’s Work

Although women’s work is often invisible or overlooked, our mini-exhibition Glimpses of Black Women’s Work, curated by Krystal Appiah, uncovers the working lives of a few 19th-century black women. The section Laboring for a Living examines examples of the drudgery and vulnerability to abuse faced by working-class and enslaved black women, while Laboring for the Race highlights some of the philanthropic and public service activities undertaken by African American women to strengthen black communities in racially hostile environments.

Laboring for a Living examines the practice of whitewashing, a fairly common occupation for urban blacks of either sex in the first half of the 19th century. However, most whitewashers did not achieve the success of Elleanor Eldridge, a free woman who established a lucrative whitewashing and painting service that allowed her to purchase several pieces of property. Elleanor nearly lost the accumulations of her hard work to swindlers who unlawfully seized her land. She tenaciously pursued the matter in court, and the sale of her memoirs helped offset the debt she incurred to regain her property. In an engraving on view, the muscular forearms of a female whitewasher are evidence of the physical demands of the occupation. 

Laboring for the Race examines groups such as the African Female Benevolent Society, which sought to create “a company of sisters united to support and assist each other.” Prior to the creation of public assistance programs, mutual aid societies such those featured in this section of the exhibition provided their members with financial assistance in times of unemployment due to sickness or other unexpected crises. The Troy Society also served as a literary society, where “daughters of a despised race” could improve and cultivate their minds.  

African American churches were often the only black-run institutions in a community. Founded in 1844, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church is the nation’s third oldest Episcopal Church with a predominantly black congregation. As with most churches of the era, black women’s leadership roles were usually limited to auxiliary committees, where they played vitally important but behind-the-scenes roles. The ladies of the St. Luke’s Society Sisterhood of the Good Angels committed themselves to ambitious goals including financially supporting their “colored clergymen,” paying off the church’s debts and liabilities, establishing Sunday schools, and nursing the sick. 

Glimpses of Black Women’s Work is on view at the Library Company through the end of August  To learn more about the latest exhibitions, programs, and events related to African-American history, visit

Library Company Events Online

If you were not able to attend our 2013 spring events in person, you can find podcasts and exhibitions on our website!

The mini exhibition on view through February, The Emancipation Proclamation: One Step Toward Freedom, is now accessible in an expanded online version. Curator Krystal Appiah looks at the abolition of slavery as a gradual process with Lincoln’s historic document being one of several proclamations that helped bring slavery to an end.

A video of our 2013 Annual Meeting held on May 21 includes reports from President B. Robert DeMento, Treasurer Robert Christian, and Director John Van Horne introducing new Trustees and recent acquisitions, reporting on last year’s activities, acknowledging staff anniversaries, and reviewing the Library Company’s finances. Ellen Gruber Garvey’s lecture on the history of scrapbooking that followed the meeting and opened the new exhibition of ephemera is also available online.

On February 28, William H. Helfand Visual Culture Fellow Allison Lange discussed the visual politics of the women’s suffrage movement, and, on March 7, Michael Froio discussed his contemporary photographs of the Pennsylvania Railroad inspired by the historic images of William Rau. Both of these lectures can be found on our digital media page and in the Visual Culture Program page.

Most recently we held our annual Juneteenth program on June 21. This year’s topic -- “African American Women in the Era of Emancipation” -- featured scholars Daina Ramey Berry, Lois Brown, L’Merchie Frazier, and Thavolia Glymph in conversation with Program in African American History Director Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Video of this program can be found on the PAAH page.

Philadelphia on Stone Wins Newman Award

The Library Company’s Philadelphia on Stone: Commercial Lithography in Philadelphia, 1828-1878, published in 2012, received the Ewell L. Newman Book Award at the May annual meeting of the American Historical Print Collectors Society. This year the jury bestowed the honor, presented to the best publication promoting the appreciation of historical prints, on the volume edited by Associate Curator of Prints and Photographs Erika Piola as part of a project to comprehensively document commercial lithography in Philadelphia in its first 50 years.

A heavily-illustrated volume, Philadelphia on Stone includes an analysis of the social, economic, and technological changes in the local trade from 1828 to 1878; biographies of premier lithographers P. S. Duval and James Queen; and new insights about genres of lithographs pertaining to book illustration, advertising, sensational news, and landscape imagery. With chapters contributed by Ms. Piola, by Print Department Curator Sarah Weatherwax, and by half a dozen other scholars, the book was the fitting culmination of a three-year-long William Penn Foundation-funded project that also included an online biographical dictionary of Philadelphia lithographers and a digital catalog of their works. We are proud that our book received this recognition from such a noteworthy organization.

19th-Century Views of Philadelphia Now in World Digital Library

Image record for “Fairmount” by J. C. Wild, 1838 lithograph, on the World Digital Library’s website:

The Library Company has contributed the collection of graphic materials digitized for the recent Philadelphia on Stone lithography history project to the World Digital Library (WDL). This rich collection showcases 19th-century Philadelphia commercial lithography and provides researchers with imagery of the urban built environment, advertising, and ephemera in early America. Uploading of the digital files and their descriptions based on the Library Company’s catalog records is well underway by the WDL implementation team. Images available to date can be accessed by browsing by institution and scrolling through an alphabetical list to the Library Company entry.

The WDL, created by the Library of Congress in 2005 with support from the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), strives to make thoroughly cataloged digital visual and audio content of cultural materials from around the world freely accessible online. Additionally, WDL is helping facilitate the digitization of archival material in developing nations. Through the site, nations with limited resources are given the opportunity to share their “hidden” cultural treasures online with the international community. Using the website’s capabilities, users can search for items based on geographic location and time period in more than half a dozen languages.

With the Philadelphia on Stone collection represented in the WDL, researchers around the world can catch a glimpse of mid-19th-century American culture as documented in the streets of Philadelphia. The Library Company is delighted to collaborate with the WDL and hopes to contribute more material in the future.

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